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Teaching Heritage

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excerpts from Helen Armstrong’s article on the places valued by migrant Australians

Armstrong, H. ‘Mapping Migrant Memories: crossing cultural borders’, Journal of the Oral History Association of Australia , No. 19, 1997

excerpt one

The experience of migration involves crossing physical, cultural and emotional borders. The memory of this experience can often be aroused by physical places. Australia has a complicated network of places which tell the story of migration for the many different groups which make up Australia's cultural pluralism. Some places are clearly evident to all Australians, such as the migrant camps or the wharves where the post-World War II migrants disembarked. Other places are hidden and are known only to migrant groups themselves…

Migrant heritage is a complex phenomenon which can be revealed by history, artefacts and place. It can be distinguished by its particular cross-cultural character which highlights a number of issues related to both the culture which is transported and cultural practices which are transformed. The memory of the culture of the country of origin is transported as it was at the time of migration. This memory is enacted in the new country and is sustained unmediated by changes occurring in the original country. As a result cultural practices become frozen in time–a transported heritage. The implications of this are not only important in terms of Australia's cultural heritage, but also in terms of Australia being a repository for cultural heritage of others. In parallel with this phenomenon, some cultural practices are also transformed in the Australian context. The Australian way of life, the altered seasons and issues of assimilation inevitably impact upon and modify the condition of say, Greekness or Italianness or Chineseness.

Along with the notions of transported and transformed heritage must be included the issue of globalisation of world values and the homogenising of the character of places. When migrants came to Australia in the 1950s, Australia was culturally different from the countries of origin. Since the 1980s and 1990s, migrants arriving in Australia have tended to find many aspects of Australia similar to the countries they have left. The ways in which global capital and the media have impacted upon most large cities in the world has resulted in superficial appearances of similarity. This has removed the need for migrant groups to encode their culture in shared public places in Australia. The homogenising of contemporary world culture thus heightens the heritage significance of those migrant places created in the 1950s and 1960s when cultural differences were strong.

Perhaps the major influence on migrant place values is the process of migration itself. The cultural values associated with the pioneering spirit, the enterprising ethos and its associated hard work, and the humiliations experienced under assimilation policies are some of the critical experiences. An understanding of the heritage significance of migration lies in the stories of these experiences. The importance of oral histories in migrant heritage cannot be stressed too strongly and many stories are yet to be told. They are spoken about within different migrant groups, but often in languages other than English. Sometimes they are not spoken about at all and the children of some migrant parents are brought up as Australians with no cultural connection to the country of their parents. It is only with the recording and discussion of the stories associated with migration that the rich encoding of migrant heritage places can be understood by the wider population.

Until recently, migrants were expected to assimilate totally into the host culture. As a result many of the valued places for different migrant groups were concealed from the prevailing culture's view. Since the late 1970s Australia has implemented a policy of multiculturalism which gives value to cultural diversity and the cultural expression of this new pluralism is now strongly evident in the urban landscape. As a result, places associated with the experience of migration, particularly the massive post-World War II migration program, can be separated into those which are clearly understood by the wider Australian community and those which specific migrant groups value but are not known to the wider community.

Those places understood by the wider community carry cultural associations collectively recognised as part of the process of migration such as the points of arrival in Australia. Most migrants in the 1950s and 1960s arrived in Australia by ship and the vision of such landmarks as the cliffs which form the Sydney headlands made for a highly emotive arrival experience. In all large Australian port cities, wharves have significance for migrants. Some writers and photographers have captured the experience of arrival and this information, together with oral histories, provide a resource base for the interpretations of these places.

Less well documented are the camps and hostels. After disembarking most migrants were taken to hostels and camps for a period of time. Such places were often stigmatised because the Australian community did not readily accept the large influx of migrants. Only forty to fifty years later can immigrant groups themselves see that the camps and hostels or sites of such places could be heritage places.

Other places associated with the early arrival experiences fall into the category of 'less well known'. Certain places in the larger port cities assumed significance for migrant communities as places to meet other migrants. In Sydney, the Bondi Beach steps are now known to have been important for Jewish men in the 1950s as a place where they could meet other European men and discuss in their own language issues which concerned them. Similarly, Redfern Park in Sydney was an important meeting place for migrants from the Middle East.

Such examples highlight the need to identify the second group of migrant places; the numerous places which have local meaning and values to different groups because they reflect the ways in which migrants strove to make Australia feel familiar. Such places are known to the migrants and possibly their children, but how does the wider population find out about these places?

Until recently, methods used to identify heritage places have tended to exclude ordinary places. There is, however, a growing body of work which is arguing for the value of ordinary landscapes in Australia. As well the recent publication by the Australian Heritage Commission, What is Social Value? has legitimated the value of local and familiar places.

excerpt two

The methods used in the migrant heritage places project involved a version of the focus group technique or guided group discussions. Focus groups are an applied qualitative research method used in market research to understand opinions held in the community. Focus groups can create a social context for people to talk to one another in their own words, in order to capture some of the multifaceted contextual aspects of individual and collective experiences. Such methods draw strongly from oral history techniques while adding the dimension of discussion. Seeking to understand migrant values related to places involves concepts which may not have been articulated before. The hallmark of the focus group method is the explicit use of group interaction to produce data and insights that would be less accessible without the interaction of the group.

The migrant heritage places study has involved a number of different migrant groups in Australia. The inner suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne have been used as case studies because of the complex layering of place values held by different groups.

An inner Sydney case study: Marrickville

Marrickville is one of the many municipalities in Sydney which has been assessed by a heritage study. The municipality is characterised by a high concentration of different migrant groups and since the 1950s the composition of the groups has been in a constant state of flux.

The heritage study undertaken by the planners, analysed the history of the area and determined whether there were places still present which were associated with this history. In the Marrickville heritage study, the planners acknowledged the presence of migrants in the area but limited the identification of migrant places to two solitary items: a Greek church and a Greek milkbar. The church was recognised as a landmark building, whereas the milkbar was acknowledged because of its intact 1950s interior. Such an assessment of valued places clearly reflects the values of an outside group, the heritage planners but it is not a reflection of what is valued by the Greek community itself.

Focus groups were set up with a number of migrant groups in order to understand what place values were held by the different migrant groups. Setting up the groups presented a number of difficulties. The process of recruiting group members needed to recognise the particular form of bonding in marginalised groups and the importance of trust and mutual respect when dealing with cultural difference. In some situations a broker such as a community worker or local priest was used to form the groups whereas in another situation the group was an extended family. This group was brought about by a family member who worked for the municipal council.

The barrier of language was real and often interfered with effective communication of complex issues. In groups where English was spoken comfortably by all participants, the exchange between the researchers and the researched was rich and exploratory. Where an interpreter was used the researcher remained an outside observer and a more in-depth interpretation could not be fully explored.

The study involved three focus group meetings over three weeks. Discussion was structured around set issues. The first meeting discussed the many different concepts of heritage places both in the country of origin and in Australia. This set the framework in which to explore the concept that places associated with the migrant experience could be considered as heritage places. The second meeting explored placemaking–the issue of settling in and making an unfamiliar place become familiar. The third meeting explored the degree to which the group valued the places which reflected their early experiences in Australia and whether evidence of such places should be conserved. The questions asked at the meetings to initiate discussion are given below:

Meeting One: What is cultural heritage?

Goal–to discuss different ways to understand cultural heritage.

Questions–What are the different ways of looking at cultural heritage in the country you have come from and in Australia? What does the group feel about a young country and its developing culture (heritage)?

Meeting Two: Making the unfamiliar familiar

Goal–to identify what places and activities you value as part of your early experience in Australia.

Questions–How did you expect Australia to be? How was it in fact? What did you do to settle in? How did you make the place more familiar to you?

Meeting Three: What do you want to keep?

Goal –to consider whether the places discussed should be kept as heritage. Questions–What places would you like to remain for your grandchildren? What do you think is the best way to keep places you value?

excerpt three

There is a consistent pattern of place-making associated with the migrant experience. Creating a sense of community has tended to follow the pattern of establishing shops which sold the food of a particular culture, focusing on places of worship as community centres, developing culturally specific recreational facilities such as clubs and cinemas, as well as using local parks and open spaces for large social and family gatherings.

Another important aspect of establishing oneself in a new country relates to the changes made to the houses of migrant groups. For example, in trying to make the unfamiliar Australian terraces and cottages feel more comfortable, interesting elements related to the housing of the country of origin were added. The use of brick patterns, the addition of columns, balustrades and cast-iron grillework became exuberant expressions of relatively restrained elements in the countries of origin. Less obvious but equally important were the changes made to gardens. Front gardens often contain trees, shrubs and herbs characteristic of particular immigrant groups. Front fences often contain details which reveal aspects of the country of origin. Statuary, tiling, and fountains are all characteristic of gardens in immigrant groups. Back gardens were consistently replanted into extensive vegetable beds with fruit trees and vines of grape and fig.

Finally there are the places associated with work. Because many of the immigrant groups of the 1950s and 1960s came to Australia to work on the large industrial projects, migrant neighbourhoods tended to develop near industrial areas. In Sydney and Melbourne this occurred in inner city areas. Industrial cities such as Wollongong and Newcastle became migrant centres. The factories in which migrants worked are redolent with stories of hardship and humiliation and comradeship.

Reproduced with permission of the author, Helen Armstrong.


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